March 6, 2013 6:55 am

North Korea mixes Dennis with menace

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and US players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang©AP

Dennis Rodman reported after his visit to North Korea that Kim Jong-eun wants Barack Obama to call him

Just days after generating global headlines by welcoming Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, North Korea returned to the limelight by threatening a return to hostilities with South Korea and the US.

Pyongyang said that, if the US and South Korea proceeded with a joint military exercise, it would unilaterally abandon the armistice that ended the Korean war – despite the fact that it announced in 2009 it had done so. “The exercises cannot be construed otherwise than the most dangerous nuclear war manoeuvres,” a military spokesman said on Tuesday, according to state media.

North Korea issued its latest threat after China and the US agreed to impose new sanctions in response to its third nuclear test, conducted last month. Pyongyang argued against sanctions by citing the need to protect its “sovereignty” – a word used six times in the statement.

While Mr Rodman’s visit and the threat of war strike a discordant note, analysts say they both fit into one of North Korea’s central propaganda arguments: that it should be treated on the same basis as any other state, and enjoy the same rights.

A tightening of UN sanctions ordered in January following a satellite launch the previous month were an attempt to stifle the country, Pyongyang said. North Korea has been banned from such uses of ballistic missile technology since a 2006 nuclear test, but it maintains it should be as free as any other state to carry out such “peaceful” uses of technology.

Some recent quirky news items could also be seen to play into North Korea’s argument that it should treated like any other country.

In January Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, made a heavily publicised visit to Pyongyang, where he was filmed visiting a computer suite at Kim Il-sung University. And, last month, North Korea started offering a 3G mobile data service to foreign visitors, who began to upload photographs and Twitter posts from the country.

But international media were most intrigued by the visit of Mr Rodman. The sports star was photographed sitting and chatting with Kim Jong-eun during a basketball game – making him the first US citizen known to have met the North Korean leader since he took power in December 2011.

Daniel Pinkston, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the visit may have been intended as part of a “honeymoon strategy” under the new leader, despite the angry exchanges over weapons development.

“They have a lot of pride and seek prestige and recognition as a normal country,” Mr Pinkston said. “This is part of the message that . . .‘we’re just like anybody else, we’re no different, and we need to be treated accordingly’.”

While television footage suggests that the two men spoke informally and with the aid of an interpreter, Mr Rodman said Mr Kim had indicated his willingness to enter dialogue with the US.

“He wants [President Barack] Obama to do one thing: call him,” Mr Rodman said in an interview with ABC News.

This suggestion was brushed off by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who stressed that the US already “has direct channels of communication” with Pyongyang.

Yet on Tuesday, Pyongyang threatened to cut an emergency telephone hotline – linking North Korean forces with the US military command in South Korea – if the US and South Korea proceed with joint military manoeuvres. One exercise began on Friday and another, involving about 13,500 troops, will begin on March 11.

North Korea said this “undisguised military provocation” would prompt it to “completely declare invalid” the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean war. However, it had already stated in May 2009 that it regarded the armistice as void. That came after South Korea had responded to Pyongyang’s second nuclear test by vowing to search ships suspected of carrying suspicious cargoes to the North.

Mr Pinkston said that North Korea appeared to have recently moved military assets away from the South Korean border for its own exercises, suggesting that it was not preparing for war.

Separately, Reuters reported that North Korea has set no-fly and no-sail zones off its east and west coasts, which indicates it will conduct major military drills, but test firing of short-to-medium-range missiles cannot be ruled out, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said on Wednesday.

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